It all started with a plush, white teddy bear named "Cubby." He (or was it she?) was introduced at a September meeting in Orlando of managers from Sterling Jewelers Inc., parent company of 840 stores in 44 states, including the Kay, Belden, and Friedlander's chains.
"Show your customers how to hug this bear, and it'll fly off your shelves," said Larry McCoy, senior vice president of store operations, as he announced that the company had just chosen St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis as its new corporate charity and admonished his charges to push sales of the little bear. "You'll know and they'll know that you've made a real difference in the life of a St. Jude kid."
There must have been a lot of hugging going on in those stores over the next couple of months. During the company's 54-day Christmas selling season, an astonishing 90,000 bears, sold for $9.95 each, found new homes. Even better: Only those customers who made a $100 purchase could buy the bears. The $292,500 raised (at a profit of $3.25 per bear) was then enhanced by a voluntary employee payroll deduction and rounded out by a corporate contribution.
Sterling Jewelers CEO Terry Burman recalls that when he first imagined sponsoring an incentive trip to St. Jude for the managers with the biggest bear sales to present the $350,000 check (and a commitment to send another $1.5 million in the coming years), he knew it would be unlike any his Akron, Ohio-based company had ever dreamed up. Those don't usually end with tears, hugs, and kisses from grateful children.
"It was a new kind of incentive for us," he said, in an understated sort of way.
Making New Friends "Where's Denise?" inquired Richard C. Shadyac, national executive director of ALSAC/St. Jude, the hospital's fund-raising arm, at the opening evening of the event. "She sold 823 bears? That's a helluva lot of bears. I wonder if she wants a job with us?"
Shadyac was on hand to welcome the 19 winning managers (14 managers, four district managers, and one regional vice president) at a brief meeting and awards ceremony at The Memphis Peabody, and would host their visit to the children's hospital the next morning.
The success of Denise Dotson was all the more remarkable because the mall in Euclid, Ohio, where she is a jewelry store manager was just 25 percent occupied at the time. Upon hearing that, Shadyac repeated his offer more fervently. "If you need a job any time, with your sales ability, just come see me."
In addition to paying for transportation and first-class lodging for its managers, Sterling distributed etched-glass awards to Denise and the other top sellers during the opening reception. "What you've accomplished in order to save the lives of children is one of the most meaningful things we could be involved in," said Larry McCoy as he made the presentation.
St. Jude offered its own thank you to the Sterling managers: gift bags packed with hospital merchandise including polo shirts; a tie for the men, a scarf for the women; coffee mugs designed by patients; and, by far the most special, a personal note written by the staff and patients.
From the Heart Graceanne Nicholson, a manager based in Kansas City, Mo., was in charge of a district that sold more than 2,000 bears, earning her the Memphis trip. Before her promotion to district manager, Nicholson was Sterling's "Manager of the Year" in 1998, for which she won an incentive trip to Hawaii. She is also a divorced mother of two teenagers.
The St. Jude promotion "made me feel so good inside to work for this company. In Orlando, when they announced the campaign, I just felt it right here," she said, covering her heart with her hand. "Every single one of my managers was touched. I have so much passion about this because ... . What can you do that's better than helping children?"
Nicholson's managers phoned her nightly with bear sales updates. When it was over, she created certificates of recognition for each manager, honored their achievements at a monthly meeting, and awarded them and their spouses with a night out for Christmas dinner and dancing.
Charlene Morris, who manages a Kay Jewelers store at Chapel Hill Mall in Akron, Ohio, was equally moved by the Orlando managers' meeting. In fact, she went right up to CEO Burman afterward and said, "I'm not sure I'll be in the Bahamas (the location of the company's next traditional incentive trip), but I'll be in Memphis with you." A mere 550 bears later ("We could have sold more, but we ran out," she said), she made it.
A Morning They'll Never Forget Upon their arrival early the next morning at the hospital, the Sterling managers were greeted by two familiar faces: Amy Lyon, 14, and Tiara Dawn Herr, 8. Both girls had been guests of the company at the September kickoff meeting and had been invited back for the managers' tour.
"When you can see a kid and their parents, that's when the story really unfolds," said Mary Crone, patient liaison and event manager for St. Jude. "Nobody can tell the St. Jude story better than a patient."
During a pre-tour breakfast, Burman brought Amy and Tiara before his managers and received warm hugs and kisses from them both. "The two of you inspired our store managers to sell 90,000 bears. Your presence at our managers' meeting put a face on St. Jude. So we thought it'd be nice to give you a keepsake," he said, handing each girl her own Cubby bear with its own heart-shaped diamond pendant.
There wasn't a dry eye in the room.
The Sterling contingent also heard from Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joseph Mirro. Dr. Michael B. Kastan, chair of the department of hematology-oncology, gave the group a primer on cancer biology that included peeks at multiplying cancer cells through super-powerful microscopes. "Technology has let us do a lot of things that were inconceivable 25 years ago," Kastan explained.
Speaking next was Shadyac, who gave the managers some background on the hospital and what they were about to see. Shadyac's perspective was invaluable; he has been with St. Jude since 1962, when it was founded by comedian Danny Thomas. During the Depression, Thomas had made a promise to St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of the hopeless, that if St. Jude could show him his way in the world, he'd build a shrine to St. Jude.
Today, this acclaimed biomedical research center, which has traditionally specialized in treating children with cancer, has branched out into other catastrophic childhood illnesses. It is known worldwide as a haven for children who need treatment, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, and no child has ever been turned away because of an inability to pay.
"Today, you're going to have an experience that will significantly change your lives," Shadyac told the group. "A hundred years from now, no one is going to know how you lived. But if you make a difference, they'll know you were here. And you people at Sterling have made a difference."
St. Jude is in the midst of a five-year, $1 billion expansion. Sterling's new goal with relation to that ambitious plan is raising $1.5 million for research at the St. Jude Solid Tumor Clinic over the coming years. "It will take our corporate giving program to a new level," Burman said.
Suzanne's Story of Hope At one point during the tour, the group was introduced to 10-year-old patient Suzanne Pavlat and her parents. Suzanne was walking, but her mother was wheelchair-bound.
Suzanne's father, Jack, described how his daughter's cancer has been resistant to treatment and keeps returning. "We're waiting and hoping for the next new type of treatment," he said, his eyes hopeful. The family lives in Virginia Beach, Va., but has been staying for two months at Target House, a long-term stay facility for the patients and families of St. Jude. A nurse takes Suzanne to Girl Scout meetings, and they do their best to maintain some semblance of family life despite the daily pressures of her illness.
"This is our fourth major hospital," Jack Pavlat said, "and it's the first time the doctors explained to Suzanne what's going on. She was 31 2 when she was diagnosed. It was a nightmare at times. The thing we've gotten from St. Jude's is hope."
Minutes later, continuing on the tour, Sterling Executive Vice President of Operations Mark Light said, to no one in particular, "It's difficult enough to think about being in that situation. But imagine if you had to work, too."
Why St. Jude? "We have been very successful because of the people who work in our stores all across the country," Burman said at the opening evening's reception. "Two years ago, we decided to give something back. We understand that cancer in children is one of the most devastating diagnoses that families live with."
So he charged David Bouffard, his director of store promotions, with examining potential charity recipients, weighing the pros and cons of each. "We wanted a charity that was national in scope," Burman explained, "a charity that could touch all the communities in which we have stores. We also wanted something that dealt with helping children and that had a research arm because we thought that was important. Our last criterion was that the charity be efficient, that it didn't spend an unreasonable amount on administrative functions."
Right from the start, there was convincing financial evidence on St. Jude's behalf. It is a $1 billion institution (coincidentally, a figure equal to annual sales at Sterling Jewelers Inc.) that treats 180 children a day, mostly as outpatients, and spends more than $750,000 a day (soon to be $1 million a day). Yet ALSAC/St. Jude reports that of every dollar it receives, 87 percent goes to current or future needs. Just about 9.5 percent is used to raise additional dollars, and just under 4 percent is applied to administrative costs.
Over nearly 40 years, St. Jude has increased survival rates of childhood cancer from 20 percent in 1962 to better than 70 percent. Every department at the massive facility conducts research to see how they can make the next child's medical experience less traumatic.
Sterling executives reviewed St. Jude and the other contenders, narrowed the field to three or four, and then visited each facility. "Of course, once you're here, your heart just goes out to the patients and the families," said Burman. "One of the other things that strikes you as you're here and walking through the halls, seeing the patients and the care they're getting, is the attitude and pride of the caregivers and the researchers. It's a total commitment of support."
Shadyac describes Sterling's commitment to St. Jude's as a "win-win situation": a chance for the children to reap the benefits of Sterling's efforts, and an opportunity for everyone at Sterling Jewelers to become a member of what he calls "the St. Jude family."
"Show your customers how to hug this bear," McCoy had said at the opening reception, "and it'll fly off your shelves. And both you and they will know that you've made a real difference in the life of a St. Jude kid."
St. Jude Children's Research Hospital * www.stjude.org
Sterling Jewelers Inc. * www.kay.com
Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation * www.pedaids.org
Make-A-Wish Foundation * www.wish.org
The Peabody, Memphis * www.peabodymemphis.com
Memphis Mojo * www.memphismojo.com